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Great reads for the young at heart

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Do you ever feel like you are stuck in a reading rut? Sometimes it helps to step away from the books that the publishers think you will like and try a story designed for someone a bit younger. We all can identify with the feelings of an uncertain future and self-discovery that are made so clear in novels for children and young adults.

In January, the American Library Association announced the 2013 winners of the youth media awards, which include the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award and several others, all considered to be top prizes in their category. A few are surprises, but most of them have been heralded by librarians, teachers and readers alike for many months. I’m sharing a few of the highlights below.

The Newbery Medal is awarded for the “most outstanding contribution to children’s literature” and was given this year to Katherine Applegate for “The One and Only Ivan.” The titular Ivan, a silverback gorilla, tells the reader his story of living behind glass at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where he paints canvases to entertain shoppers. He mostly thinks about how to create better art and not about what his life is like inside his small cage. At least, not until a baby elephant named Ruby arrives and prompts him to remember the jungle life that he lost. Applegate’s poetic prose and lovable characters will move you to reconsider what you take for granted, and what you can do with the time you have been given.

The winner of the Newbery Honor may appeal to those who loved the Harry Potter series and Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.” “Splendors and Glooms” by Laura Amy Schlitz uses the many dichotomies of Victorian London life as a backdrop for a story of magic and mystery, complete with an enigmatic puppeteer, an evil witch, and two orphans in search of girl, Clara Wintermute, who goes missing on the night of her 12th birthday.

The Michael L. Printz Award is given for excellence in literature written for young adults, and has honored in previous years some of my very favorite books. The winner this year is “In Darkness” by Nick Lake, a narrative based in contemporary Haiti, after a devastating earthquake. It is not a book .for the faint of heart, but is moving and rewarding for those who are willing to face the ugly parts of life. The protagonist, known as “Shorty,” is trapped under rubble, struggling to stay conscious and alive while awaiting rescue. As his fate hangs in the balance, the narrative switches to that of Touissant l’Ouverture, a former slave in 18th-century Haiti, who led the fight for justice and a final end to slavery in his nation. If you want to learn more about the history of Haiti and go beyond the brief and tragic headlines, prepare yourself to be challenged and moved by this superb novel.

This next book not only received a Printz Honor, but also the Pura Belpre Author Award and the Stonewall Book Award this year. “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Saenz brings together two 15-year-old loners who seem at first to have nothing in common, but soon make a connection that changes the way they see themselves and the possibilities that lay before them. If you spent time during your teen years uncomfortably wondering what it was you were “supposed to be” when you grew up, you will certainly see a bit of yourself in these boys on the verge of becoming young men.

For those of you who seek out and enjoy books that feature bright young women who strive to make a difference in their world, have I got something for you. “Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein stars two best friends flying a British plane over Nazi territory in 1943. The plane crashes and “Verity” is forced to leave Maddie behind, only to then be captured by the Gestapo. This book is a thriller with heart, as Verity tells us the story of how she met Maddie and was sent on a top secret mission with her. The girls’ friendship will move you, and the suspense will keep you up well past your bedtime, even if your bedtime is no longer 8 p.m. on a school night.

The Odyssey Award goes to the best audiobook for children and young adults, and was won by one of my favorite authors, John Green. The plot of “The Fault in Our Stars” (teens with cancer) sounds like the ultimate downer, but Green makes the story about what it means to be young and in love, even when the future is uncertain. The audio version is narrated by Kate Rudd, who brings Hazel and Augustus to life as real teenagers living the only lives they know.

Once you read one or more of these fantastic books, you may want to try your hand at a bit of writing. A great place to get ideas and inspiration is our Write Basics Conference, coming up on March 9, at the Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter. Authors David Housewright and Holly Day will talk about the writing and publishing process, and answer your questions. Call the library at 829-5574 for more details and to sign up for this great free event.

LAUREL M. HALL is the senior outreach coordinator for Kitchigami Regional Library System.